legal research

This summer, I’ll be posting Q&As from summer associates and summer interns. Have a question? Email me at thecareerfiles@gmail.com.

Question: How to Communicate That You’re Stuck on a Legal Research Assignment?

Today’s question is from a legal intern who is wondering, “Any suggestions for how to bring it up, if you’re completely stuck during a summer research assignment?”

Answer:

One of the practical things you’ll learn in your first year of law school is how to conduct legal research. It’s a super important skill and takes practice to perfect. Most of this practice will happen on the job, and many new lawyers find that the legal research questions they are tasked with answering at work are much more complex than those they faced in school. That makes sense – your boss and case teams already know the easy answers. They need you to delve into new or nuanced issues they haven’t thought through before. Or, they engage in one of the senior attorney’s favorite brief-writing hacks – writing a sentence or two laying out a position without any case law support and including a placeholder for a citation they then ask you to find. Sometimes there is case law supporting their point, and sometimes there is not. It’s up to you to figure it out.

In light of all this, you may get stuck on a legal research assignment. If you do, the best way to address it is to (1) let your supervisor know as soon as you realize you’re stuck, and (2) be ready to talk through what you’ve tried so far.

Here’s how I suggest handling this.

First, take a little time to jot down your legal research steps so far.

Look back at your notes from your assignment meeting and make sure you took any steps discussed at that meeting. Make a list of any search terms you ran in addition to all databases and other sources you checked.

Second, email or call your supervisor and ask if you can meet (or video chat) to discuss some questions you have about the assignment. 

If you cannot find any helpful case law, meaning everything you do find is contrary to the point you want to establish, I would write something like the following in an email:

Susan –

I have been researching the issue you asked about, and all the case law I’m finding is contrary to the point we want to establish (sample cases attached). Do you have a few minutes to chat about what I’ve done so far? I would appreciate your thoughts on how best to proceed.

If you cannot find anything directly on point:

Susan –

I have been researching the issue you asked about and am not finding helpful case law. Do you have a few minutes to chat about what I’ve done so far? I would appreciate your thoughts on how best to proceed.

Doing the legwork before you reach out is helpful in case Susan picks up the phone and wants to chat through the issue as soon as she gets your email. And knowing exactly what you’ve done is key to guiding the conversation with your supervisor so they can direct you further based on any gaps in your research.

And of course, make sure you reach out to your supervisor in advance of the deadline – really, as soon as you realize you need some help. This way they’ve got time to help you through the issue and you still have time to finish the assignment. Going to your supervisor at the deadline only to say you’re stuck is far too late.

Finally, if you’re worried about looking dumb, don’t. I do not expect very junior attorneys and law clerks to get the work right all the time (nor do my senior-level colleagues) – you’re still learning! But we do expect that you are diligent in trying to do the work and are prepared to speak about what you’ve tried so we can find a path forward together.

Check out more career advice here.

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